La petite mort: It Follows (from Sex, from Adulthood)

I have to admit, I had difficulty watching director David Robert Mitchell’s much acclaimed It Follows. The film offers many arrestingly beautiful compositions, but also spends an inordinate amount of time on rough foliage as seen from below. I enjoyed the soundtrack, but felt that it didn’t always match this low-budget indie film’s content. Many set design elements cohesively constructed a dreamy, teenaged-wasteland aesthetic, but I found most of the settings underused. The narrative transitions were also often stiff or needlessly protracted, which in turn left me feeling strung along by an unreliable narrator, always knowing more than he’s showing.

Similarly, I enjoyed the concept of the film: the idea of an entity that slowly, relentlessly follows someone under multiple guises until the pursued sleeps with someone else (and thus passes the STI demon on, though this only works if the newly pursued doesn’t get caught). However, I kept getting thrown by the changing monster mechanics: the “It” sometimes quick to catch up with its prey, but at other times conveniently delayed for days; sometimes stymied by doors (never windows) but wielding a force capable of knocking people through the air; and sometimes just abandoning its established passive style to suit the film’s need for more action.

These inconsistencies were difficult to align with a film that adheres to real-world physics where human reactions and consequences are concerned, yet which also plainly wants to advance a more symbolic reading of events as they transpire. Is this a film about the ramifications of having sex, as the means by which this curse is passed on suggests? Not really, because even though our protagonist treats sex with hesitation at the outset, her life-transforming encounter isn’t actually her first time at the rodeo.

Is it a film, then, about the disappointment of growing up, as suggested by speeches about the broken promise of adult freedom and being envious of small children? Maybe. Maybe “It” is the spectre of death that awaits us all, or at least the “little death” that dogs our realization that even getting what we always wanted is not as earth-shattering as we might once have dreamed. If so, it’s a wobbly metaphor: Some people in this film get brutally murdered by that realization, and only so long as such terror is passed on or evaded by its latest victim can the rest of the afflicted find peace.

I’m torn, then, on the film as a whole. It has its technical weaknesses (and strengths, granted), but on this thematic level–the question of whether It Follows forwards a nihilistic view on life, or simply an elegy for lost youth–I still find myself haunted by what I’ve seen. I’m especially struck by how much restraint is shown in the script: We even have one character reading twice from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on her clamshell e-reader, as if to drive home the film’s overall fixation on the horror of suffering and one’s eventual loss of self–but far from these scenes proving abrasive, the severity of the excerpted text is undercut both times by its young reader’s goofy, unassuming mannerisms.

As a horror movie, too, It Follows definitely pulled off a few jump scares, and although I was exasperated by certain characters’ poor decisions and our camera’s selectivity at key points, the film undoubtedly built tension. Moreover, our monster works well even when we’re not allowed to see “It” (that is, when we’re not cinematically aligned with the protagonist). In fact, these empty spaces might even be better for sheer dread-value than the creepy figures we later see, because It Follows bears closest resemblance to its schlocky slasher forefathers when we’re watching hyper-sexualized dead women, old women, distended men, and Gollum-esque children lurch in silence toward our protagonist.

Is It Follows worth seeing, then? I’d say it’s a fun little experiment with some haunting and memorable visual choices. But as much as I’m left musing over ideas of loss and disaffected youth in its wake, I’m already starting to feel like this film is another Virgin Suicides: a work that wants you to believe that something deep and ineffable has just transpired, but which doesn’t do nearly as much of the work as promised to get you even halfway there.

On Re-Learning How to Write, How to Think, How to Be

At one of my workplaces, a client routinely presents the staff with unsolicited “important reading material”. These long, formal letters, addressed to third parties but cc’d for our attention, implicate major news events and miscellaneous personal encounters in a vast campaign of human rights violations visited upon the author over the last quarter century. By her own admission in these widely disseminated letters, the author was diagnosed at the outset of this campaign with paranoid schizophrenia, removed from her position, placed on disability, and hospitalized–all actions that confirmed for her precisely how far major institutions were willing to go to silence her over the data she was gathering on government schemes.

As one might surmise, I don’t recycle these letters immediately, though there is a certain kindness to just politely accepting and then disposing of such troubled material. I don’t skim through these materials to scoff at the author, though. Rather, I even make the mentally precarious choice of going through some of these letters with a highlighter, noting key passages and turns of phrase, before putting them all to rest.

Now, some might say that’s a writer’s instinct–a fascination with the rhetoric and vernacular of a person so intent on rationalizing the irrational, on writing and rewriting their personal narrative in every possible light in order to make sense of it all. This would, however, be a superficial read: If anything, these letters–in their eloquence, precision, and overall cohesion–blur the line between “madness” and the compulsion experienced by many writers considered “sane”–the drive, that is, to narrate trauma (personal, societal, environmental) into something restorative, something clarifying and coherent and maybe even edifying.

In other words, I actually find this author to be an intelligent, well-read person; between wild assertions about vast conspiracies, she moves effortlessly from historical to philosophical to literary to academic reference–a wealth of critical knowledge in this case turned horribly against her ability to perceive excessive pattern recognition for what it truly is. If only for this reason, then, I find something in her mental health struggle–relentless, myopic, and with such an acute awareness of women’s history (especially regarding institutionalization as a means of social control)–that resonates well beyond the extreme conclusions she draws about the world around her.

(And yes, her conclusions are extreme, including the existence of a secret UN code conveyed by her dentist, the pain in her teeth affirming Canada’s complicity in global human rights violations; a system of signals that makes a past employer culpable in the mass murder of young women; speeches by past PMs meant to impart coded awareness of the vendetta against her; a university plot to partner her children with entirely the wrong sort of people, making for mediocre marriages and impacting the wellbeing of her grandchildren; covert meetings with UN representatives at her convenience store; and a secret text left by a famous philosopher’s family for her alone to find and read.)

Indeed, the overall thrust of her argument is belief in a coherent, far-reaching order to the universe. It’s an order working against her, granted; one at every turn striving to suppress her work, isolate her from her communities, and otherwise besmirch her good name with mental health labels–but an order just the same. And so she reacts to it by ordering her thoughts as systematically as she can–suggesting, perhaps, a persisting confidence that, even if the world is out to get her, it is doing so through a level of organization that can still be defeated by organization–that is, the correct ordering of words and narrative constructs–in turn.

In reading her work, then–and I call it “work” because the writing, tragically, is every bit as methodical and rife with citation as any academic article I’ve read as of late; a testament to a brilliant mind trapped too far down the rabbit hole of theoretical constructs I encounter in my own studies–I’m left with two reactions. The first is a sense of there but for the brain’s diverse neural quirks go I, while the second is the emergence of troubling questions: What narrative loops might I be trapped in, likewise without realizing it, having relied too long on certain systems of thought? Where might I be spinning my wheels in place, under the misguided belief that, with enough retelling of certain stories in new contexts, the truth will eventually out?

The Stories I Tell

I find myself ruminating on the folly of doing the same thing over and over, either on compulsive autopilot or out of the genuine belief that the result is sure to be different next time, or the time after that, or the time after that, because in the last two weeks I have had to come to terms with the fact that my writing is simply not up to snuff. Put a gentler, more bureaucratic way: I have insufficiently grown to meet the evolving demands of my stories–whether they be academic, fictional, or personal.

For the purpose of successfully conveying my dissertation research to my committee, I thus have to re-learn how to write academic work. For the purpose of doing right by the ideas I want to wrangle with in fiction, I likewise have to re-learn how to write with an attention to detail and character that is most certainly not lacking in my day-to-day experience of the world.

But above all else, for the purpose of being simpatico with the forms in which I’m writing, I need to re-learn which stories are the stories I want to tell, which stories are worth telling, and which stories are not, in some sense, simply acts of self-erasure.

This should be easier than it seems, especially when one of my jobs–at a local bookstore–offers incessant reminders that, in the long run, nobody else is really going to care; in the long run, the world is full-to-bursting with excellent and mediocre writers alike, with so many from each category achieving their moment in the spotlight and then finding themselves remaindered, forgotten, past their prime. But somehow the reminder that I am, ultimately, writing only for myself makes this situation harder–because what I have come to realize is that there is something worse than aimlessness in what I write: There is cowardice, and a refusal to be fully present in my own stories, my own texts.

Indeed, Mark Doty’s words, which have followed me through many of my greatest hardships, seem indelibly writ upon the bone at times like this–“We all have reasons / for moving. / I move / to keep things whole.” And to be fair, I have as of late tried to confront this cowardice directly, to centre it in the stories I tell. But there is something about even this effort that only exacerbates the problem: Is it to cowardice and absence that I really want to dedicate my time and literary output?

As a teen and very young adult, I focussed on sincerity in my poetry–openness seeming fundamental to good work. Whether that was wise or misguided, in fiction it never really translated; the aversion to being seen as “writing from life”, when I so dreaded the thought of being reduced to my personal struggles, yielded minimalist prose. I had my Carver period without ever quite grasping the nuances of Wolff or Rash, followed by a love of Iris Murdoch that often matched lean prose with pointed moral indictments of characters who, simply by struggling to be good, thought that they were good. (Thank goodness I hadn’t read any George Eliot at that time, or the novel I wrote then, about a set of characters with competing self-delusions, would have been an even worse screed against human folly.)

I knew neither style would “sell” (not in my hands, at least), but the more damning conceit, really, is that I continued submitting such work even as I read plenty of contemporary fiction and disliked most of it. I especially hated the telegraphing flashbacks that made up the bulk of contemporary short fiction, character motivations spelled out in lush, self-centred sentences instead of illustrated through forward momentum. I wanted stories that followed seamlessly from a given thesis, such that all ensuing events were simply compelled towards an inevitable end. I even tried to sell a novel written in such a sparse register (a terrible attempt to merge my aesthetics with Canadiana, in the form of a Northern Ontario bildungsroman that treats its protagonist harshly for her naive expectations of life) and only after over fifteen literary agents didn’t even deign to reject the work did it strike me that I needed to master short stories first.

So I wrote plenty of short stories, in a wide range of forms, but only made progress with science fiction. Even then, I have been mindful of my slings and arrows therein: I’d get accepted somewhere, and then find it even harder to submit to that place again, gripped with a cold-sweated conviction that the first acceptance was just a fluke, and I’d soon enough be found out for the hack that I was. (And this, despite the fact that I have full enthusiasm even for negative reviews, which is most of what I’ve had to date; I welcome the opportunity they provide for self-reflection and improvement, so the disconnect is puzzling.)

Regardless, I’ve had plenty of silly periods. I once staunchly declared a commitment to mediocrity on the path to eventual improvement (and if not for this, granted, likely wouldn’t have submitted as much work in the first place). I also openly gave up submitting literary/mainstream/general fiction a couple years ago, which doesn’t at all account for the (futile) fact that I have literary/mainstream/general fiction in submission queues today.

And then there were times when fiction was painful–when the very idea of writing was intolerable, ill as I was, or when the only writing I could do focussed on a limited range of emotions and experiences, particularly around self-erasure. Those are sad times to reflect upon, even as some of the work I wrote therein did in fact sell. However, I was treading water myself–at best–and as such have an excuse for creative stagnation then.

I don’t want to be treading water anymore, though. I need to keep growing, and that requires taking stock of the storytelling routines I’ve clung to for so long. For three years, for instance, I worked on a story about fence-sitting, and with it, the trouble with storytelling itself. In part, I knew all along that this intended novel was an indictment of myself, and uneasily noted the number of short stories written in the same time period that, in one way, shape, or form, negotiated similar themes of passivity, indecision, cowardice, and misdirected energy.

Recently, I had to let that story go–its protagonist, always intentionally passive, ultimately too passive, in too didactic a narrative, for the piece to warrant further investment of time and energy. It’s a loss, to put aside a world in which one has dwelled for so long, but I keep hoping I can make it constructive in the end–by recognizing what the story’s failure is telling me.

What Things Might Come

Frozen, afraid to act, afraid to move forward in case my moving forward causes harm: the recapitulation in fiction of my own follies, while not surprising, is certainly a bit difficult to accept–not least because self-awareness on this accord poses difficult, but obligatory questions about next steps. Specifically:

Do I continue writing the stories that are most familiar to me–and yet also, the most easily suffocated (stylistically, structurally) by my desire to keep up a wall between myself and my fictions?

Or do I learn to write stories that depict an approach to life entirely unlike (and surely better than) the one I know best?

This second option raises its own questions of cause and effect: Can I write such stories–genuinely, compellingly–without first re-learning how to be? Or would one act (gradually) come to inform the other? Over time, with considerable commitment, could the writing of such stories effect changes in my own approach to life?

No, I don’t ask such questions imagining a saccharine story of personal transformation through dedication to more uplifting fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact: I am a creature of Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy; human frailty, madness, eccentricity, and survivable (if not surmountable) failure are all more kindred to me. And so it simply frustrates me that, for all the intimacy with which I’ve known these gradations of the human experience, I haven’t yet learned how to write on them–in any form–with the honesty, compassion, and fullness of feeling they all deserve.

But at least I know now what I do not know. And difficult as I know this next leg of the journey will be–breaking down all my familiar archetypal turns, all my surefire narrative crutches, and allowing vulnerability and compassion (not criticism) to coexist on the page–I am ready to learn.

I have to hope that will be enough.

“Failure of the Genetic Code”: On the Choice Not To Have Children

I finished Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids just as a harried mother and her children rushed from a taxi to meet an intercity bus that, as it turned out, was running late. Within seconds of her asking if she’d missed her connection, the two boys–six and nine respectively–were chatting with me as well, the youngest especially eager to share what he knew about hybrid electric cars and his desire to be an engineer when he grew up. As we waited, the fretful mother tried to get her eldest to put his hood up against the cold, but he had gel in his hair and didn’t want it mussed. The younger of the two, keenly observing his older brother, had no gel but followed suit when she tried to get him to so much as put his jacket on; as he declaring through chattering teeth, his ears were “just perfect the way they are.” Instead, the two boys debated what the intercity bus would look like when it showed up, the youngest moving from “I hope it’s a double-decker” to “keep looking for a double-decker” and the eldest insisting, “it doesn’t need to be a double-decker; it just needs to be green”, though this didn’t stop him from twice chasing in front of blue-and-orange city busses that eased up to a neighbouring stop.

This mundane little encounter proved a striking reminder that to be around children is to engage in a very different set of conversations–ones that can swing in a heartbeat from coherent and forward-thinking to a battle of wills over life-preserving basics, like “don’t run in front of a moving bus” and “it’s below zero and drizzling: put your dang-blasted coat on.” I’ve been around a lot of children in my life–I love children–and engaged in hundreds of conversations with parents about their children and child-rearing in general. But Meghan Daum’s book was the first time I really felt like I’d been in lengthy conversation with “people like me”–people who have made the conscious decision not to have (or who have otherwise come to accept not having) children of their own.

What I didn’t expect from this collection was how lovely so much of the prose would be; putting aside the deep resonance I found in their content, many of these sixteen writers–thirteen women and three men–show a tremendous knack for weaving vivid personal anecdote into broader reflections on being childless-by-choice. I suppose that partly comes with the territory, though, because the book expressly addresses the intersections between choosing to write and choosing to be childless. Moreover, for some of these writers, it was indeed a binary choice: They felt that a woman can write (and even if she parents, be a lesser parent for it), or a woman can invest her physical and emotional energy in parenting, at cost to her literary ambitions. As Sigrid Nunez puts it,

Another fact hard to ignore: motherhood is one of the most significant as well as one of the most widely shared of all human experiences. In Western culture, it has always been essentially synonymous with womanhood. Yet who can name a major novel by a canonical writer, male or female, that takes motherhood for its main subject? (105)

There is some irony to this question, though, because I certainly thought of one book right away: We Need to Talk About Kevin, by the author of the preceding chapter–but I highly doubt that’s the kind of narrative Nunez suggests should easily spring to mind, if good motherhood and good literature could coexist. Granted, mother and acclaimed author Alice Munro is mentioned in this chapter, but Munro has serious regrets about neglecting her children when they were young in order to write, indicting herself as “hard-hearted”, while the mention of Anne Sexton brought to mind a book I read last year–Half in Love–by Sexton’s daughter, who struggled with her own suicidal behaviour in the wake of her mother’s manic depression and ultimate suicide.

Suffice it to say, the central lesson of this collection could be that all lives have their concessions–but since the concessions for each of these writers differ considerably, this book is more significant as a reminder that no two childless-by-choice people are exactly alike. Some in this collection, for instance, even came to their choice after becoming pregnant–after either wanting children in theory for years, or at least wanting to want children at some point down the road–and they speak plainly about the relief following their miscarriages and abortions.

Others never imagined (or wanted to imagine) children as part of their lives, and explore a wide range of explanatory factors, including: the idea of instinctive motherhood as a social (and therefore non-universal) construct, the flaws in modern feminism’s “you-can-have-it-all!” rhetoric, and the negative perceptions of children given to them by their own, utterly failed parents. Many also struggle to untangle the very fact of their broken childhoods, though they generally conclude that, since plenty of people who suffered growing up go on to have children, their own disinterest in bearing children is not an intrinsic result of past trauma. (It’s just a really messy detail that tends to exacerbate already tense conversations with people who press for reasons “why”.)

Lionel Shriver takes the most ruthless approach to justifying her childlessness–treating the decision as, yes, ultimately about selfishness; about being part of a Be Here Now movement that prioritizes personal happiness above all else, cultural consequences be damned–but other authors take stances that ring far truer to me. One (a gay man sexually active in the ascendancy of the AIDS crisis) relates his sense that children were a remote and bizarre luxury, part of an outlook on life that could only belong to people who felt they had a future themselves. Meanwhile, as Rosemary Mahoney puts it, parenting is the “hardest art”–inasmuch as truly understanding and feeling the agonies of childhood can make some of us wholly inadequate for helping others through it. To this end, she writes:

I’m strong in many things, but when it comes to children and their struggles I have no strength. I cannot stand to see a child I love suffer. When I see my teenage nieces and nephews cry because of some insult or slight or rejection, I feel a terrible cold pain that turns hot and then cold again in the span of a few seconds … I would not be able to let my child leave the house without a helmet on his head until he was thirty years old. … I would be unhinged by the dangers he faced and would be so overprotective I fear I would destroy him and myself in the process. (239)

Though my own bout of fatalism wasn’t driven by a belief in the inevitability of eventually contracting HIV, I certainly spent my adolescence and most of my twenties convinced I wouldn’t make it to 30 (next January!) due first to the PTSD from childhood incidents and then to the unmanaged downswings of bipolar II. And, yes, I have been thrown into powerful existential terror for my nephews on many occasions, haunted by all the hurts past, present, and future that I can do nothing to fix or prevent. And like M. G. Lord, whose chapter filled me with overwhelming relief that I wasn’t the only person for whom the perception of colour was literally diminished during severe depression, I recognize that I am “not a hypothetically perfect person but a flawed mess, who is trying, however inadequately, to leave behind a better world than the one through which I have had to make my way” (225). Like Lord, I hope to be a good mentor where I can.

The title of this post comes from my own experience of social pressures to conform, to have children, because it would “make me a better person” or was the “natural” thing to do. Like people in this collection, I’ve had a range of folks who didn’t know me try to tell me motherhood should be a priority in my life: cab drivers, hair stylists, bus drivers, trainee counsellors, store clerks, fellow students, and of course, family. When I was in my late teens, and firm even then in my view that I would not have children–that I would, at best, adopt–I occasionally fell into heated “discussions” with my father over this matter. To this person I love, both childlessness and adoption were nothing less than a “failure of the genetic code”–which, while true in the strictest sense, I now know how to counter by arguing for the value of passing on memes as much as genes, and invoking research around the idea of kin selection: that people without kids, by virtue of having more resources of their own to share, statistically improve the life outcomes of their siblings’ children (thus ensuring the passage of one’s genes in other ways).

Nevertheless, a lot from my childhood still informs my behaviour in negative ways, so I can’t pretend that my choice not to have children isn’t at least partly informed by my personal experience of mothers and fathers. As Michelle Huneven writes, “[e]ven as I learned that not all families were like [mine], I didn’t trust myself not to re-create what I had known” (143). I read that sentence over and over before pressing on in Daum’s collection, so true did those words feel to my own experience of growing up believing that familial love was intrinsically tethered to a profound lack of physical safety or emotional security.

This was not the only time, either, when I caught myself ruminating over specific lines in this book–so rich, so diverse, and so nuanced is this collection of personal narratives around writing and the sometimes simple, sometimes complicated choice to decline parenthood. I rarely read memoir, let alone promote it, but Daum’s Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is one book I can already see myself placing in dozens of hands, hoping that the long-overdue sense of community I felt while reading it proliferates in a way I know I never will.

On the 2015 Hugos, and the Promise of Fantasy and SciFi

In the last week, the Islamic State took control of 90% of a Palestinian refugee district in Damascus, Syria, worsening an already dire situation for some 18,000 human beings trapped within. Meanwhile, 147 people were murdered by al-Shabab in Garissa University College, Kenya, while most of the Western world was busy rationalizing the killing of 149 passengers and flight staff by suicidal co-pilot Andreas Lubitz.

The world is filled with so much suffering, often in the form of such swift and large-scale destruction, that I often find myself taking stock of the relative security in which I live, and which allows me to pursue a teaching profession, to spend my days as a doctoral-level scholar, and to write: all with minimal risk to my personal safety.

This level of social security, and the benefits it has granted me, comes with an immense responsibility. This responsibility does not arise from any external, “objective” source; it is simply the consequence of recognizing the extreme preferability of my situation to the alternatives too many people live with every day–in my country as well as in the world at large. I’m speaking, of course, of alternatives that put people’s lives in routine danger, as well as alternatives that grossly restrict the mobility and related life outcomes of various human beings for reasons of sex, ethnicity, or other socialized difference.

Put simply, I know it’s in my best interest to see my level of personal security maintained, if not improved–which, in purely pragmatic terms, means extending that same security to as many other people as possible, so there will be less reason for anyone else to imperil mine.

However, when I learned about the “Sad Puppies” slate and subsequent Hugo nominees, I was struck by how deeply this notion of security differs for others who share the same relative security (overall) in my culture. For people like Larry Correia, Brad R. Torgersen, Vox Day, and John C. Wright, either the idea of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) stories having sociopolitical resonance is new, forwarded by people of a leftist bent who “just” write to forward personal agendas, or else SFF stories have strongly veered from a correct set of sociopolitical positions (right-wing, religious, libertarian) into “unnatural” and immoral messaging.

Either way, for these folks, and the fans who support them, personal security is very much threatened by champions of overt gender, orientation, and ethnic diversity in the discipline. As Correia writes of this year’s Sad Puppies slate:

This is just one little battle in an ongoing culture war between artistic free expression and puritanical bullies who think they represent *real* fandom. In the long term I want writers to be free to write whatever they want without fear of social justice witch hunts, I want creators to not have to worry about silencing themselves to appease the perpetually outraged, and I want fans to enjoy themselves without having some entitled snob lecture them about how they are having fun wrong. I want our shrinking genre to grow. I think if we can get back to where “award nominated” isn’t a synonym for “preachy crap” to the most fans, we’ll do it.

Breitbart writer Allum Bokhari similarly champions this movement as a cry for political freedom, describing the slate as

a tongue-in-cheek bid by science fiction & fantasy (SF&F) authors to draw attention to an atmosphere of political intolerance, driven by so-called “social justice warriors,” that is holding the medium back. Spearheaded by authors Larry Correia and Brad R. Torgersen, the campaign sought to break the stranglehold of old cliques by encouraging a more politically diverse group of fans to take part in the annual Hugo Awards.

I’m going to put aside these notions of a “shrinking genre” and the idea that female persons, queer persons, and non-white persons being nominated for and winning awards is “holding the medium back”. I certainly see no signs of anything but expansion for SFF stories–on TV, in literature, in blockbuster movies–but I can only assume that these writers are referring to something more specific: a perceived shrinking of certain kinds of SFF writing (which, again, probably isn’t the case, in the age of e-publishing especially, but might seem that way if the amount of other SFF writing is growing at such a grand scale).

No, my interest instead lies in how very much these folks–these human beings–feel as though their ability to write without fear of reprisal (especially for disseminating opinions of a condemnatory nature) has been compromised, and now requires social redress. Granted, I write this as a Canadian in full favour of our hate-speech legislation–and with it, the idea that “freedom of expression” requires checks and balances, as amply evidenced by humanity’s horrible tendency to forfeit personal moral imperative when presented with charismatic leaders (think Aldolf Eichmann and the banality of evil). Consequently, though I recognize the importance of being able to protest institutions that hold the balance of power over individual voices, the idea of freedom of expression being inviolable in a sustainably secure society holds little sway over me.

That said, the US has a markedly different climate where civil liberties discourse is concerned, with even gun ownership intrinsically tied up in notions of the right to resist government oppression (a right, in Canada, that doesn’t extend much farther in our official documents than freedom of the press and freedom of association). So the position of these deeply conservative (religious) writers remains fascinating to me, despite how absolutely repugnant I find most of the beliefs they wish to be able to forward without social challenge within the SFF community. Vox Day, for instance, is well known for his hateful rhetoric, so one brief example will suffice; as he wrote in 2013 of fantasy author N. K. Jemisin,

…it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we simply do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious historical reason that she is not.

Other views from this contingent are milder, but no less unsettling, and putting aside the anti-gay and related, religious-conservative social criticism that emerges on some of these writers’ blogs, there are also explicit insertions of such rhetoric in the nominated works themselves. This certainly accords with their claim that a “diverse” range of ideas is needed in the SFF community, but not with the claim that the primary aim of this movement is to return SFF’s focus from politics to good storytelling. For instance, John C. Wright’s Hugo-award-nominated Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth has this in its description, from Vox Day’s Castalia House:

In the sixteen essays that make up the collection, Wright addresses a wide spectrum of ideas. He considers the darker possibilities of transhumanism, provides a professorial lesson on the mechanics of writing fiction, explains the noble purpose underlying science fiction, and shows how the genre’s obsession with strong female characters is nothing less than an attack on human nature.

Even though the “strong female character” (reduced to being exemplary on the basis of one attribute; rarely allowed more depth than that) is an archetype I vehemently dislike, the construction of this sentence moves from the everyday to the extremely sensational, positioning its argument in a prescriptivist light that ever bends toward natural fallacy. The reasoning of the essay itself is little better; after a great deal of prescriptive discourse delineating appropriate male and female virtues, it takes as its argument that with egalitarianism there can be no romance, such that strong women require still-stronger men to spark any interest for the reader. And for those who might scoff at this romance requirement, the essay has rejoinder there, too, arguing that “girls who do not like love stories are well advised to learn to like them, because such stories deal with the essential and paramount realities on which much or most of that girl’s happiness in life will hinge.”

Who is the audience for a piece like this, if not the echo chamber of fellow conservative Christians? How does an essay like this engage in a dynamic, genre-wide discourse? I’m reminded of the works by John Eldredge I read for an Evangelical lit course in my MA year–books that suggested a restlessness with reality that compelled belief in epic adventure-quests (of an obviously religious nature, but with clear correlates to fantasy writing at large). While fascinating as cultural objects, they engage with an almost requisite insularity in their own positions, and no others; in this light, books like Wright’s don’t seem at all like a solution to the problem of sociopolitical exclusivity he and those like him claim to oppose in today’s SFF world.

And yet, the argument seems to be precisely that they shouldn’t have to be inclusive: that the ideas of people with morally conservative positions involving public proclamations of how others should and should not have sex, who is and is not entitled to full civil liberties, what major life choices other people should make, and how writers should present themselves in fiction or the world at large, must simply be accepted as equally valid. Clearly, the argument seems to go, the only reason that SFF works by such people aren’t getting more accolades is because their politics are not “in vogue”; because the genre is now filled with people who willfully ignore good storytelling in favour of political agendas.

And this argument is a damned shame, because it seems so diametrically opposed to the promise of SFF in the first place. After all, where but in the realms of SFF stories do we ever stand a better chance of testing our greatest visions–for better and for worse–of the world to come, of the world today, and of the worlds we’ve grievously forgotten?

In recent years, SFF has been exploring new possibilities, new frames of reference, new voices and settings and sociopolitical milieus. This seems to deeply upset the folks behind the Sad Puppies slate, but the rising interest, say, in Chinese science fiction or African fantasy is far, far less a threat to dominant Western narrative structures than it is an invitation–an expansion of the playing field on which we can all explore, and test, our most deeply held values and beliefs.

Rest assured, if those values and beliefs are worth their salt, they’ll survive the comparison with other narrative vocabularies. And if they aren’t, they won’t–but what good are such flimsy constructs anyway?

I read Vox Day’s Hugo-award-nominated story last year. “Opera Vita Aeterna” follows an elf with actual magical abilities who leaves his people to study scripture with an isolated monastic order, because he discovered that a member of that faith had greater magic than any he’d ever seen. After a great deal of padded theological discourse and not much else, he leaves an intricate new manuscript in his wake, preserving aspects of the community after a devastating fate befalls them. For me, the issue with this story wasn’t its clearly Christian politics; it was the poor storytelling. The problem wasn’t simply the purple prose, or how all the major plot points were pushed to the periphery; on a more fundamental, tension-building level, the elf’s decision to dedicate himself to these monks’ faith is never really questioned; nor is the supremacy of the monks’ god, even though we never see any overt sign of its superior “magic” in the text.

Recently, I read a short story in the other “camp” that fell equally flat for me, precisely because its politics were also self-evident, but the story was not. The protagonist in “Red Planet” by Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-dimensional argument for the equal-just-different value of being blind; instead of showing why undergoing surgery to pass immigration requirements to Mars wasn’t worth it, the story explicitly asks the question and then just as explicitly answers it. There are plenty of stories, though, that address topics like physical difference and societal marginalization without sacrificing character and plot development. In this vein, I know I’ve read good, clearly Christian stories, too.

Suffice it to say, then, I’d feel much more sympathy for writers who believe their religious and political viewpoints are unfairly keeping them from award recognition, if their writing could ever be apolitical. But it isn’t. It can’t be. For all the claims of simply wanting to focus on “good storytelling”, we routinely (if in often unexpected ways) reveal ourselves–our interests, our perspectives–in our fictions and essays.

By all means, then, bring religious (and political) points of view unapologetically into one’s writing: Hell, I’ve routinely got religious characters in my works, and I’m an atheist. In fact, I see no conflict between those statements, because one of my major drives is to present opposing points of view as best as I can in my writing, and I can imagine no better testing ground for my beliefs (on any subject!) than an ideological arena that a) draws from as wide an array of potential counterpoints as possible, and b) employs only the strongest possible versions of all opposition therein.

This, for me, is the tremendous potential of the SFF world, so without trying to impose this view on others, I would simply say that this stunt with the 2015 Hugos is predicated on a search for the wrong kind of security. What we need is more fearlessness about our personal convictions in the public sphere–yes, absolutely–but that fearlessness needs to start with more introspection about our own work first, and an honest examination of whether it upholds the very values of free, dynamic discourse we’ve also come to expect–lucky, lucky people that we are–should just be handed to us by the world at large.

That said, best wishes, good voting, and rigorous writing to you all!

“When You Are Crazy You Learn to Keep Quiet”

There are a few schools of thought about silence. Two in particular have raged in mind this past month: the one that views silence as a tool of oppression, a tacit consent of evil in all its great and little forms, and the one that regards silence as judicious–a mark of wisdom in a relentlessly prattling world. Lately, I’ve been struggling to strike a balance between the two, and though I still haven’t found my equilibrium, I feel it’s time I at least disclosed the fact that I’m struggling with this at all.

I discovered a few weeks ago that the sound of my own voice had become intolerable to me. It was a curious realization–and a difficult one, working three part-time jobs that all require me to be pleasantly conversant and even to hold forth with authority on certain subjects–and I responded by sharply curtailing other opportunities to speak, whether they be in-person social settings or through most social media. To be honest, I wish I’d been in a position to stop talking altogether for a while–to cut out into the woods for a bit, or go on one of those silence retreats–but like most people, I wasn’t in any financial position to take that kind of leave of absence from my life.

Even what little privacy for self-reflection I sought wasn’t always easy; on two occasions, when I told people plainly that I didn’t want to hear the sound of my own voice for a while, the follow-up was “I completely understand–hey, we should catch up over coffee soon.” So either I became reticent about sharing even basic information with acquaintances who ran into me, or I continued to perform in unavoidable group settings, and went home heavy-hearted about how much I hadn’t intended to say.

A few events occurring in short succession brought this strange state about, but at the crux of things was a changed personal response to the manic phase of bipolar ii. I’m still learning what it’s like to manage this condition, to be on medication that stabilizes the extreme lows and also, ostensibly, the expansive highs. My medication prompted a health scare a month back (it messes with one’s metabolism, and I started feeling nigh on comatose after even light, high protein meals), and I panicked and stopped taking it entirely for a little while. It was in this period that I hit what felt like a traditional manic high–which for me involves talking faster, more expansively, and with more emotional investment in everything than usual; feeling energized without much sleep or food; and believing I can take on a million projects at once–and I reacted with no small horror once I recognized the state for what it was.

In part, I was afraid that an extreme upswing meant another extreme downswing, so there was anger with myself for not being able to control things better. In larger part, though, there was a sudden, confused distrust of anything I said–of what impassioned beliefs were really mine, and what were simply symptoms of an elevated state. I wondered which of my opinions, in general, weren’t simply knee-jerk reactions to a variety of traumatic experiences–and, to my greatest horror, realized that, socially, the difference didn’t matter. Socially, I knew many people who still expected me to be “on” all the time; who took my every articulated opinion with the utmost seriousness; who even interpreted my silences as significant commentary in turn.

It was at this point that I sharply curtailed my social sphere. There was just too much noise, and I thought that perhaps if I simply listened to the world for a while instead, I’d come to a better sense of my own, deepest beliefs again. I’d be able to hear myself, over both the cacophony of social expectation and the frenetic clamour of my own emotional states.

And to an extent, this has worked, if indirectly: The writing I’ve done lately has been some of my clearest, and I’m inclined to say strongest. In that great battlefield of ideas, I’ve been holding myself accountable for certain behaviours and their consequences, and ultimately reminding myself why writing is so important to me in the first place. As Emily Bronte once wrote, “If I could I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results.” Well and good in theory, but not only does the social nature of our species make this difficult, the other school of thought on silence also makes such wishful thinking a bit of a coward’s move.

Indeed, on one social media sphere I kept open, I could only marvel at how forthright and firm in their convictions so many other writers and artists remained. I’ve been that strident, certainly, but for the past month any strongly articulated view on my part has just made me unhappy–both because I’ve been questioning the provenance of all my opinions and because, as one close acquaintance put it, it’s entirely possible that the views I hold, even if arrived at coherently, through the perfectly grounded lens of personal experience and identity, are the wrong views to be articulating in the activist landscape that currently exists.

I reflected on this last especially on Women’s Day, when my Twitter feed was flooded with wonderful histories of under-acknowledged female persons who contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe–but also the usual bevy of “all women are X” posts that always make me cringe. Women are people–some honest, some not; some with great emotional quotients, some not; some compassionate, some indifferent; some nurturing, some abusive. I’ve never been comfortable with discourse that suggests something more unified and hivemind-esque about the gender construct (to which I only subscribe nominally–as a sexed body gendered “female” by society), but when I see this rhetoric paraded about, I do understand why it exists, and the ends it tries to serve in a world with so much persisting marginalization-by-gender. Thus I’ve come to realize I usually do more harm than good in pointing out the flaws in such rhetoric, even if they most certainly do exist.

Similarly, a real bee in my bonnet before I fell silent was the issue of trial-by-public-opinion rape accusations, particularly on university campuses. I’m a very rare case–someone both sexually assaulted in university and falsely accused of sexual assault in university. My experience on both sides of this fence, joined with the sadly non-zero number of times I’ve seen women threaten boyfriends to tell everyone they’d been abused if they didn’t get their way, has made me concerned about ensuring due process for everyone involved in any assault claim, and a strong advocate for restorative justice modelling in general. This is absolutely not to suggest that the majority of assault claims are fabricated, or to deny the extreme difficulty in prosecuting most assault charges to begin with; I’m simply uncomfortable with the idea of “reasonable cost”–whether it be for non-guilty persons on death row, or for individuals still publicly pilloried long after a given assault charge failed to result in conviction. But I do understand now that, in our culture, with the frustrating threat of lawsuits hanging over every institutional body attempting to mediate fairly on all parties’ behalf, my concern seems to do more harm, on whole, than good.

The list goes on, but the underlying issues remain constant: I have very little confidence in the foundation of many of my opinions these days, even less confidence in the social value of what opinions I have most prominently forwarded in the past, and an extreme exhaustion with the weight placed in many circles on what I say regardless. And yet, silence is not the response I wish to have to a world of relentless injustice; I want so much to be able to advocate for a better society in a way that makes sense and does no harm. If my writing this past month is any indication, this goal isn’t entirely beyond me, either–but only in fiction have I seen such clear results to date. I don’t know when, or how, the sound of my voice in other spheres will stop grating so much. I can only say that I’m still in process–as we all are, I suppose.

Best wishes to you, then, wherever the journey currently finds you all.

Original? Hardly: Jupiter Ascending, Victorian Flop

Jupiter Ascending answers the question I bet you never thought to ask: What would Victorian space opera look like? And no, I’m not talking steampunk Victorian scifi, although an inordinate amount of the Wachowskis’ ridiculous budget was clearly spent on contraptions invoking such aesthetics at one juncture. Rather, what would an epic science-fantasy adventure look like if it were written by a Victorian–and not a very good writer at that?

At its core, the film tells the story of a young woman (Mila Kunis) of low beginnings, scrubbing toilets and enduring familial indignities, but coveting the material wealth of the people whose houses she cleans. Then–surprise!–she’s a space princess who literally owns the planet, and after this position is rigorously formalized, it becomes critical which contracts (marriage or otherwise) she chooses to sign. Rest assured, though: None of this aristocracy bullshit sticks. Instead, Jupiter Jones learns that no amount of wealth matters as much as love, which in this case is emphatically tied to the idea that one person calling you “your majesty” should be enough.

Oh, and there are some explode-y fight scenes and space ships and stuff.

I almost don’t know where to begin in describing how much Jupiter Ascending fails to excite. If it was intended as a series of situations in which the female lead’s biggest decision is whether or not to sign various contracts presented by predatory aristocrats, that’s a huge plot development issue right there, not to mention a choice that immediately shuts women out of the action. (Seriously: None of the female characters has a significant action role in this space epic; even the female bounty hunter centrally hangs about on her weaponized bike and reassures a male bounty hunter that she trusts him, while the female head of what we’re supposed to read as the space police embodies justice at large: present, but unable to assist where it counts.)

Similarly, if the Wachowskis expected us to worry that Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) might not stop these contract signings in time, thus foiling the schemes of aristocratic siblings Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Balem (Eddie Redmayne), they did themselves no favours with action sequences that combine the worst of Lucas and Jackson–Lucas, in acrobatic displays that play out so effortlessly no sense of genuine risk emerges; and Jackson, in running-through-collapsing-structures-and-under-falling-debris sequences amplified to the point of absurdity.

A whip-crack script might have helped some of these issues–something lean and replete with witty dialogue that effectively conveys, say, the two main characters falling in love. Instead we also get bizarre, halted speeches (including backstories we’re just supposed to care about because they’ve been plainly stated) that seem half the fault of the screenwriters and half the fault of the sleepwalking actors. Granted, Redmayne plays his heart out as a Slytherin-wannabe, which is at least amusing, but otherwise, there’s more range of expression in the CGI’d winged lizard-soldiers.

Thematically, too, the film reaches for some depressingly blatant motifs. It turns out Jupiter’s space family is ancient, for instance, and the secret to their immortality–spoiler!–has something to do with “harvesting” planets. But where do we first hear that word? Why, right near the beginning, when Jupiter is pressured by her cousin into having her eggs “harvested” to make a lump sum of which she knows she’ll receive exactly 1/3 (a division also not compellingly explained). For “reasons” it seems important for her to have this experience–perhaps so that later we can see her react differently when forced to choose between current family and future generations (… of all human life on Earth)?–but even the “right” choice takes a while to dawn on her. So… character progression? … Sort of?

Regardless, the ultimate transformation is that Jupiter learns to appreciate her family more–even the wannabe-egg-stealing cousin–and for being a good little Angel of the House, Jupiter gets to fly around on her own time in the end. If you want a message, this film’s is essentially, “Who cares if you’re cleaning toilets if you’ve got a man who treats you like royalty at the end of the day?” Well, a man and gravity boots. And wings. Or something.

Suffice it to say, the Victorians themselves couldn’t have written a more staid script–right down to two men designed for combat brutalities getting squicked by the application of a sanitary napkin to staunch a flesh wound–for what was supposed to be a high-flying, free-wheeling, epic space fantasy. But I’ll say this much (for the Victorians, not the Wachowskis): There’s a fair chance the former might at least have developed a more entertaining film.

Hell, I’d even settle for a Regency-era novelist like Jane Austen being given a shot at the dialogue. I mean, if you’re going to blow $175 million on a film essentially about how a woman’s most important choices involve intergalactic contract law, you might as well allocate some of that budget to raising the dead. (Also a Regency-era invention, I might add: Thank you, Mary Shelley! It’s a crying shame how far the genre sometimes hasn’t come.)

Telling Stories: Fiction, Memoir, and the General Weirdness of Writing the World

In one of the books I’m currently reading, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society, a party finds eager, middling writers thronging about nine members of an elect group on the verge of adding its first new member in thirty years. Of this elect group the most famous protégé is one Martti Winter, who has just made a journalist feel foolish for asking if Winter drew from personal experiences in a novel with a cross-dressing protagonist. As Winter replies,

“Even the best cook can’t make chicken soup out of his own feet. There aren’t so terribly many ingredients in anyone’s life, less meat than there is on a sparrow. The average person could come up with at most two good novels. Many who think very highly of themselves can’t manage more than a couple of anecdotes. … By the time you get to the third novel you’re going to have to throw in a few pinches of someone else’s life.”

A woman then approaches, attempting banter where the journalist’s tactics failed:

“Tell me, am I in any danger of being used if I come too close, oh great and terrifying author?”

“Go ahead and try,” Winter said, somewhat wearily. “Open up to me. Reveal something interesting about yourself, and I’ll use it when I need it. If I need it. Altered for my own purposes.”

“How will you alter me?”

“Well… I might turn those curls of yours black or make you fatter or thinner by ten kilo or so, whatever comes to me. and maybe, just maybe, I’ll change one of yours eyes, perhaps the left one, into a glass eye.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open. “Huh?”

Winter smiled.

“Or I might give you a wooden leg, or some kind of disease. How does syphilitic brain damage sound? Or maybe I’ll have you broken in two in an auto accident.”

The woman smiled, frightened. “You’ll eat me alive.”

She grabbed a companion by the arm and started lisping like a little girl. “Oh, won’t you please be a nice man-eating lion and let me go if I tell you a juicy story about my friend here?”

Winter looked at her apologetically. “I’m sorry, but I don’t bargain with my material.”

I was put in mind of this scene when reading two pieces this week on the tenuous relationship between fiction, memoir, and the real people who often inspire an author’s work. In The New Statesman, Oliver Farry asks nuanced questions under the abysmal headline: “Should you be wary of writers you know? You might be providing them with free material.” In particular, Farry writes:

Plenty of things keep us in check, not least libel laws, or professional constraints – writers as varied as John Le Carré, Flann O’Brien and Yasmina Khadra have adopted pseudonyms so as to keep their jobs – but probably the most pervasive source of self-censorship is your relationship with people you know. Of course, wilfully alienating people on a regular basis is neither advisable nor laudable but the exigencies of enclosed social circles often mean harsh truths remain unsaid and back-scratching thrives.

Few people want to jeopardise their careers by saying unkind things about certain figures or institutions. But what about those people who don’t necessarily wield any influence but whom you don’t want to upset? I’m thinking of friends, family and other acquaintances. John Fowles was so intimidated by what his parents might think of what he wrote that he felt he needed them to die before he could really get started. Geoff Dyer’s work is littered with personal details that many people would shudder at their parents knowing but he says that his never showed any interest in reading his books. Others have been less compunctious – Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini was such a thinly-veiled portrayal of his tyrannical military father that Conroy’s mother presented it to the judge at her divorce proceedings, saying, “everything you need is in there”.

Farry’s list of examples goes on, but it could have gone on much longer–so much does the history of letters owe to people writing about failed relationships, failed childhoods, failed efforts of so many other stripes when other active participants therein still endure. Meanwhile, in the L.A. Times, David Ulin responds by asking, “What do writers owe their subjects?” He goes on to say:

Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become even more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.

“The act of writing about another person,” the memoirist and essayist Marion Winik has written, “occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.”

At the same time, as Abigail Thomas puts it in her memoir Three Dog Life: “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn’t my memory of a memory also real?”

The questions Thomas is asking sit at the heart of not just literature but also living, the problem of perception, meaning, of (to use a word I don’t believe in) truth. How can we ever see anything except from our own perspective? And if that’s the case, isn’t it the perspective that ultimately counts?

All writing is autobiographical, in other words, even when it aspires to be, or insists on being labeled, something else.

Here, though, I think Ulin incorrectly applies the word “autobiographical” as a stand-in for something else, something incredibly significant to the work of writers (in specific) and human beings (in general). To arrive at what I mean, though, a little “real” autobiography seems to be in order.

One Day You’ll Regret How Mean You’ve Been to Me

These days I shudder at the thought of writing memoir, but I didn’t always, and I still encourage friends who’ve chosen memoir as their form to pursue that which feels right to them. Form must always follow function, I strongly believe–and as a younger person, memoir seemed incredibly functional to me. Indeed, my earliest memory of wanting to write a “tell-all” of my life is set in middle school–either grade seven or eight, since we didn’t have grade six at Kane M.S. I don’t remember the time of year, save that I’d just had a pretty rotten day made worse by wandering to the steep hill at the back of the school’s property and slipping in the muddy grass.

I remember starting work on my memoir after somewhat sorting out the mess I’d made of my pants. The book would begin with the bitter injustices faced at the hands of bullies before I entered the gifted program, and then the bitter injustices I faced after, followed by the real knife-twist in the wound: the fact that middle school was no better than elementary. After, I’d get into all the family stuff none of my classmates knew I’d been facing all throughout, and oh, how they’d feel terrible then, for having added so much pain to an already difficult life!

Or, wait–no: I’d start with an anecdote from the first day of grade five. That’s what a good book needed, right? A hook? So I’d start by describing my first day on the school bus where I’d been miserably bullied every day the year before–me, this strange, brash, emotional child who only occasionally had her long hair brushed and who carried a bright yellow plastic lunch box that was just asking to get passed around and occasionally emptied while a truly sadistic bus driver joined in on the mockery.

I’d start by describing the way I’d stood up and apologized on the bus that first day of grade five, for being so strange and ridiculous and clearly a deserving target of abuse at the hands of the fourth to eighth graders, before asking if maybe this year we could start over, because this year–I promised–I was really trying to change. That’d get my readers right in the feels!

These days, when I think back on this memory of a memory–sitting in muddy pants in back of my middle school, despairing about some fresh act of bullying or related social exclusion that I may or may not have deserved; digging deep into a history of similar events with similarly mixed feelings of guilt and injustice–it’s the “perceived injustice” side of things that makes me the most squeamish. Last year, a young man in Isla Vista brutally murdered six people and injured thirteen others before killing himself, and I read his manifesto: the whole, danged, depressing screed in which he attributed his unhappiness to beautiful women not talking to him (and also the mega-lottery not picking him as its winner, after his father gave him The Secret and he took that book’s ridiculous claims to heart) before deciding to take revenge on men who had what he didn’t think they deserved, and on women who had no right to bodily autonomy if they wouldn’t sleep with him.

Obviously I’m not trying to suggest that I see a mass murderer in myself, but this killer’s attitude at 22 reminded me in part of my attitude at 11 to 12: the part that still felt the world “owed” me something better; the part that was so consumed by this sense of being “owed” that I sometimes failed to see how I could be doing more, in turn, to make my world a better place.

There was one person who was a good, kind friend to me in middle school, for instance, and it would take years for me to realize that I didn’t honour her friendship properly at the time. I was embarrassed to be seen around her if people from my class were around, because they liked to make fun of her–but whose loss was that, ultimately? She doubtless perceived the slight, but it didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions to the fullest in those same years; meanwhile, I wanted so much to be included in one group that I lost out on a great many opportunities to have a better middle-school experience with her, and others like her.

So it goes, of course. Childhood is a powerful learning process that (with any luck) starts to reap results before we kick the bucket. Nonetheless, memoir-writing consequently has this dangerous whiff of self-indulgence to it. Certainly, plenty of memoirists rise above the reactivity phase of so much self-pitying autobiography to a stage of more meaningful and broadly significant self-reflection, but suffice it to say, now that I’m an older writer, I realize just how much more honest I’d still need to be with (and about) myself before I could even begin to broach the more difficult matter of representing others in my life with the fairness they, in turn, deserve.

Writing Fiction, In Fact

Thankfully, none of the stories I’ve lately wanted to tell has clamoured for memoir as its form. Nonetheless, I’m still left dreading questions that seem to tether my writing to autobiography or otherwise suggest I write primarily from a therapeutic need. These questions first emerged when I shared general fiction with others, and when I started publishing poetry and pursing playwriting, but I suppose I was caught off-guard when it happened with sci-fi, too. Was no genre, no form safe from interrogating how my speakers/narrators were somehow echoes of my own, deep-seated issues?

As a doctoral candidate in English lit, I can safely tell you that the heyday for psychoanalysis is well behind us (pick up any lit-crit book from the 70s, though, and man, you’re in for a ride), but as I continue to grow in my writing, I know I have to get used to some people assuming, say, that a female protagonist estranged from her father is somehow a sign that I’m estranged from mine. And yet, if I shared what I really feel is going on in those scenes–that I’m trying to take on both subject-positions at once–I fear I’d only make matters worse.

On the other hand, those questions keep me conscious of redundancies in my writing. Thus far, I see two ways of looking at the presence of repetition over an artist’s work: Either the artist is refining a given theme through mindful variation (think Lynch or Cronenberg), or they’re just not that inspired to deviate from a shtick that works (think James Patterson). I’m still growing, so I don’t know which position best describes me yet, but being self-aware, I hope, will help incline me more toward the former.

Moreover, I am absolutely aware that each of my current works starts with a feeling, which I will concentrate on intently until a specific scenario emerges. This is how I wrote “A Gift in Time,” for instance: I started with the idea of futility, constructed a character who (for me at the time) best embodied that idea, and pushed the futility of their situation to (what I felt was) its natural breaking point. I had my own, personal brush with futility at the time, but absolutely none of that specific situation made it into the story–only the feeling, played out in a different scenario with entirely different characters.

In an ideal world, that’s as close as my writing would get to “autobiography”, but I’d be lying if I said that my general fiction didn’t suffer from its own, weird negotiation with that term. After all, I’m a voracious conversation-recorder: Anything I overhear or see on the bus or in the street is likely as not going to get jotted down, and characters from my neighbourhood or turns of phrase and striking situations among people closest to me all find themselves in a heap of potential material beside The Machine.

Granted, I’ve written many stories that don’t have any of these tidbits within them, but the ones that do sift overtly through such detritus leave me unsettled. Nothing of either sort’s been published yet, so I feel as though I still have time to decide how comfortable I am with work that reimagines and repurposes the everyday for completely fictive scenarios. Nonetheless, I’m torn between the sense that every single character in the literary fiction I write is in some way me (occupying each subject-position to the fullest and fairest that I possibly can), and the sense that, on the surface, all of my characters going to be read as other people–real people–because, say, the setting of a story might be my city, and because certain anecdotes might bear an uncanny resemblance to things I’ve actually seen and heard.

Back to the Point

So when Ulin states that “all writing is autobiographical” I can’t help but read the comment as pragmatically meaningless. Yes, we’re all subjectively engaged in our own lives; by necessity, that’s just how things are for corporeal beings. But I’d argue that a vital component of our growth–as human beings as much as artists–is precisely to what extent we are willing to push past a surface subjectivity that orients the world solely around what it’s done to us and how effectively it’s currently serving our needs.

In saying this, I suppose I should stress that reactivity is by no means irrelevant–especially if helplessness, perceived or otherwise, has been an integral component in our experiences–but an equally difficult and non-automatic position to occupy is that of trying to see the world (including your own experiences within it) from another point of view. This is something I know I strive for in my writing, and this is something I know absolutely shapes my preoccupation with certain themes and characters over others: How can I more fairly represent and understand that and those which I am most inclined, on a knee-jerk level, to regard most critically?

In my experience, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do (and which I continue to have to do, sometimes on a daily basis) is recognize that I have an inner truth about how certain situations played out, and perhaps who was most at fault within them, which I know that other human beings will never share. And yet, life goes on! Without resolution on so many such accords; without one absolute way of viewing the correctness of a situation rising to the top; without one “objective” truth trumping all.

My ultimate caveat in relation to this notion of “autobiography” is thus that, unless the author takes as their central work the attempt to raise him- or herself above an automatic subjectivity to a more measured and self-reflective subjectivity, the term is crudely and destructively applied. Conversely, though, if a given “autobiography” allows its readers greater insight into a wide range of subject positions, who could fairly contest its use to describe writing of most any given form?